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Defeating Islamists at the Ballot
Defeating Islamists at the Ballot
A dilemma for Washington is that whenever the United States pushes for elections in the Middle East and Muslim countries, Islamist parties often perform well, even better than liberal, nationalist, and secular parties.
Saturday, February 27,2010 10:58
by By Khairi Abaza and Soner Cagaptay IkhwanWeb

A dilemma for Washington is that whenever the United States pushes for elections in the Middle East and Muslim countries, Islamist parties often perform well, even better than liberal, nationalist, and secular parties.   For instance, in the Palestinian, Lebanese, Egyptian and   Iraqi elections of 2005 and 2006, Islamist parties either finished first or did well enough to alarm their secular opponents.  Even in Turkey, a democracy ruled by secular parties since 1946, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a party with Islamist roots, defeated secular, liberal, and nationalist parties in the elections of November 2002 and again in March 2007.

If Turkey’s example represents the future of the democratization of Arabs, are then America’s efforts to promote democracy in Muslim countries as well as block the rise of Islamists doomed?     Not quite. Islamist parties perform well in elections because they already possess the necessary ingredients for electoral success: an exciting ideology, and substantial support (particularly financial) from anti-American forces around the world.  This is not the first time the United States has faced a situation in which international support threatens to catapult anti-American forces to power at the ballot box.    Washington encountered just this scenario in Italy after World War II, with Soviet-supported communists poised to take power through elections. Yet Washington managed to prevent the communist takeover of Italy.

The Italian case indicates that U.S. efforts to shape the Middle East and Muslim countries through electoral politics are not doomed however Washington will have to learn to apply the lessons of its accomplishment in Italy that began over sixty years ago.

At the end of World War II, Italy’s powerful communist movement received significant support from the Soviet-sponsored Communist International. In the 1946 Italian election for a constitutional assembly, the Italian communists who ran in a coalition with the socialists emerged as the most powerful legislative block, winning 29 seats to the rival Christian Democrats’ 207 out of 556 seats in the assembly. Money from the Communist International helped the communists establish grassroots structures, obtain arms, and carry out propaganda to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Italians.  At that time, Italy appeared a lost cause to Washington.  Yet by 1958, the Christian Democrats won 273 compared to the communists’ 140 seats in the chamber of deputies, establishing a political ascendancy that would last until the end of the Cold War.  How did this happen?

Some might view it antiquated to compare Italy with the Arab world.   Italy today differs greatly from the Arab world.   It is wealthy and has a large middle class, which forms the bedrock of Italian democracy, while the Arab world is poor and lacks a significant middle class.  Yet the Italy of 1947 looked a lot like the Arab world of today.   Back then, Italy was as poor as Egypt is today.  Italian GDP per capita in 1950, adjusted to today’s prices, was $4,100, less than Egypt’s current GDP per capita of $5,800. In 1945, life expectancy at birth in Italy was 66 years. In Egypt today, that number is 70.

How did the U.S. prevent communists from taking over Italy at the ballot box? First and foremost, Washington made a decision that in the case of Italy, the battle was one in which politics was the continuation of war and international conflict by other means, and that such political warfare could not be won with- out a massive plan. Communists could be defeated only with bold initiatives.  A statement by George Kennan, the founder of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, demonstrates such thinking:

“Political warfare will be the employment of all means that a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.   Such operations are both covert and  overt as political alliances, economic  measures,  and   wide  propaganda  to such  covert  actions  as  clandestine   support  a friendly foreign element of black  psychological warfare   and   even   encouragement   of   underground resistance in hostile states".

What this statement underscored first and foremost was the need for a fundamental restructuring of the U.S. government.

The first step was to set up the National Security Council (NSC) the NSC’ first directive, NSC 1/1, aimed to prevent Italy from becoming communist.   Within the State Department, the Policy Planning Staff was specifically established to combat communism at the ballot box in Italy. The other departments followed suit in the 1940s and 1950s.

The strategy was to use not just the government but also the collective wisdom of the American people in creating policy, so Washington rallied American NGOs to the struggle. For instance, the AFL -CIO promoted the idea of non-communist labor unions and transformed the Italian labor landscape from one in which communists had been dominant. There were massive campaigns by American civil society: Italian-Americans wrote letters and sent cables to Italy(10 million in all) discussing their commitment to the U.S. and asking their compatriots back home to follow the  successful American model. These steps effectively the anti-communist message across in Italy.

On the public diplomacy front, the U.S. government used its immigration policy as a weapon. Italians at that time would have been as desperate as Egyptians today to migrate to America, and the United States made it very clear: those Italians that voted communist, would be unable to emigrate from Italy. Italian-Americans wrote letters saying, “Uncle, if you vote communist, I cannot bring you here.”

The government also used measures to isolate communists in power.  In this regard, it made U.S. assistance conditional on being non-communist. Moreover, all money going to contractors in Italy was screened to make sure that none would end up in the hands  of  contractors  with  communist  connections, those  who  employed  communist  subcontractors  or worked with communist unions.  American money was used intelligently to make sure that it would not enrich communists.

The U.S. government was creative in its use of the media.  It employed white propaganda (talking up the benevolence of American efforts); such as sending its ambassador on highly publicized tours. It also used black propaganda, such as exposing the communists’ connection to the Communist International which as critical to communicating the message that the communists thrived through foreign support.

American methods were not always so naively benign. Bags of money were flown into Italy and given to Christian Democrats and liberal        parties to strengthen them against the communists. The U.S. government identified non-communist political leaders, such as Alcide di Gasperi, and supported them financially for about ten years.  On the less benign side, the U.S. was prepared to deliver secret shipments of arms to Italian security forces so they could crack down on communist uprisings and strikes.

In the end, this campaign of coordinated effort worked, and the communists were defeated.   In the elections of 1958, they received only 22.7 percent of the vote compared to 42.3 percent for their main liberal democrat rivals, the Christian Democrats.

Even if some U.S. actions to defeat the communists at the ballot box in Italy were specific to the Italian landscape, the lessons of post-World War II Italy are still important.  The Italian example not only provides food for thought, but also shows that with the right policies, America can overcome the challenge it faces at the ballot box in the Middle East:

Identify allies: Muslims versus Islamists

Who should America support in Muslim countries? This is crucial, because only with the right U.S. allies can Islamists be defeated at the ballot box.

Today, there is an ongoing struggle in Muslim majority countries between Muslims who are Islamists and Muslims who are not Islamists.   This is a battle more important than the struggle between the West and Islamists, as it will determine the future of Islam. Washington  and  the West  should  support  Muslims who   believe  in  liberal  democracy  and  its  values. America’s allies within Muslim countries are all Muslims who are not Islamists.

How about moderate Islamists?  Are they potential U.S. allies?  No. The term “moderate Islamist” is offensive to all Muslims; any attempt to forge alliances based on this term is necessarily abortive. Islamists find the “moderate” appellation abusive because it implies that they are practicing a diluted, Islam-lite version of their faith.

Secular, liberal and conservative Muslims, too, find the term “moderate Islamist” offensive, as it signals that the West is looking for allies among the Islamists rather than supporting true liberals and democrats.  It does not matter how Washington qualifies Islamists; once it acknowledges them as partners, parties who believe in liberal democracy will see this as a sign that Washington has allied itself with the Islamists.   This is what happened in 2002 in Turkey when a powerful perception was built in the country that the rising AKP, wined and dined in Washington, was America’s partner.  At that time, secular groups, including the Turkish military, pulled away from Washington; they remain aloof to America to this day.

Washington need not completely ignore the “moderate Islamists,” though.  It makes sense for the U.S. to engage Muslims who are liberals while creating rifts among Islamists. Such a step would weaken the Islamists in the same way the U.S. weakened the Italian communists by engaging socialists and creating rifts between them and the communists.

Do what Islamists do … and do it better.

Fund what the Islamists fund … and fund it better.

As an international conglomerate, Islamist regimes are flush with cash.  Persian Gulf states are awash in petrodollars.  Islamist charities and groups are able to fund Islamist political forces around the world.         This “Islamist International” provides local Islamist movements with the financial means to challenge regimes, as well as the secular, nationalist, and liberal   parties in predominantly Muslim countries. Washington should study what Islamists are doing to build local support—and then outperform them.  This will require the United States to fund what Islamists are funding, and   fund such activities better. If Islamists are pouring money into political parties, media, NGOs, charities, and free schools, Washington ought to do the same, and with even more money. This is neither a battle involving a few hundred million dollars nor a short-term struggle.   Italy was weaned away from the communists in thirteen years, at the expense of billions of dollars.

This is the only way countries such as Egypt can be won over.

Financial support is crucial. Given that Islamist parties and organizations have billions of dollars from their state and institutional sponsors, it is difficult for nationalist and secular political parties, who have no such international support, to counter them.

Sound financial backing has helped catapult Islamist movements to power by a variety of channels. Thanks to their wealth, Islamist parties are able to organize more efficiently than secular parties. Accordingly, these parties have better grassroots appeal. In Egypt, for instance, Islamists reach down to district and village levels, and establish themselves in ways secular/liberal parties cannot due to lack of funds.

Islamists financially support like-minded political prisoners and their families.  Liberals do not have that luxury and are therefore less willing to risk imprisonment. Accordingly, a fund for political prisoners who fight for liberal democracy should be established to support them and their families.

With money in hand, Islamist parties are providing Turkey, Arab world and other Muslim countries with  social services that governments no longer provide,  such as quality free education and healthcare. The population bulge of the 1980s in Turkey, as well as the one currently hitting the Arab world and many Muslim countries, has created a situation in which the infrastructure  of state social services, built decades ago to serve a smaller population, is crumbling.  In the fifty years since its education and healthcare systems were set up, Egypt’s population has grown by 50 million.  Egyptian public services have not coped with the increase.  In areas where states are failing, Islamist parties, organizations, and charities are moving in to provide those services at minimal or no cost.

Islamists who set up free schools are able to win the hearts and minds of parents and indoctrinate children at a young age.  In the 1990s, Turkey’s political showdown between the Islamist Welfare Party government and the secular bloc was fought over the issue of free Islamic education.  Secular forces, with the help of the military, were able to either bring Islamic schools under strict regulations or shut them down altogether.

Such strong political action is unlikely in the Arab world; only with significant financial support that allows secular parties to establish free, quality secular schools will they be able to challenge the appeal of Islamist parties and the efficiency of their grassroots organization.

Apply Different Speeds

In formulating policy, the U.S. ought to distinguish the political differences between Turkey and the Arab world and other Muslim countries, and even make nuanced distinctions among Arab countries.  In Turkey, as was the case in postwar Italy, liberal democrats have political room to maneuver and have generally advocated freely. This is not the case in Egypt and most Arab countries.  Repressive Arab regimes often limit the activities of liberal democrats.  In Egypt, where emergency law has been enforced for the last twenty-eight years, secular liberals face huge challenges.  The media and judiciary are closely aligned with the regime, and it is extremely difficult to obtain a license to establish a political party.   Freedom to express one’s political opinion is severely limited, rights to demonstrate or strike are not officially permitted, and students and non-Islamist political parties are prevented from engaging in political activities on campus.  These statutes are upheld by Law 79,

which is actively being challenged by students and political parties.          Meanwhile, Islamists use campus mosques to promote their agenda.  The task is momentous, but unless strong pressure is exerted to ease some of the constraints on political participation, it will be difficult for liberal forces in Egypt and else- where in the Arab world to flourish.

Islamists, however, are able to bypass legal restrictions prohibiting the existence of religious par- ties.  By relying on the mosque, Islamists disseminate their message to large groups of individuals.   More- over, given the underground nature of Islamist political structures, Islamists are less vulnerable to the regime’s efforts at control and persecution than the legally organized    secular democratic opposition groups.  Unlike underground Islamist organizations, legal secular liberal parties are exposed to regime interference when choosing their leaders or formulating policies.  Legal status also means that liberal parties face tight government control of their finances. Islamists, meanwhile, do not have a government body overseeing their funding or expenditures.

Another difference between Egypt and Turkey is that the Egyptian regime, like most Arab governments, benefits from an Islamist threat. It is in the interest of authoritarian Arab regimes to demonstrate that Islamists are the only viable alternative to their rule.  This argument is used as a pretext to avoid liberalizing the political space and to blunt American efforts for regional democratization.

 

In Turkey, liberals already have political room and roots in civil society. Arab countries like Egypt need more aggressive efforts to open the political space for liberals to succeed, while Turkey requires a more subtle approach.   In each country, U.S. policy will need to be formulated and implemented at different speeds, calibrated to local conditions.

Create a cost for being Islamist

Once the U.S. has identified its allies, funded them properly, and out-assisted the “Islamist International,” the next step in battling the Islamists will be to create costs for being an Islamist political party or figure.   Currently, there is no such cost for Islamist activity vis-à-vis the United States.  In fact, Islamists benefit from the way Washington deals with Muslim countries.  For  instance,  when  Washington  grants contracts to build schools and gives money to businesses  and  NGOs,  some  of  that  money  goes  to Islamist  businesses,  helping  fund  their  activities. When exchanges are organized and people visit the United States, Islamists benefit at least as much as the liberals do.  And little of the U.S. money spent to support local media actually ends up in the hands of liberals, nationalists, and secular types.

There are many ways to create a meaningful cost to being an Islamist in the Middle East.  Washington might, for example, consider banning the immigration of Islamists. During the Cold War such restrictions were both acceptable and practiced when it came to the immigration of communists into America. Immigrating is a privilege that should be granted only to America’s friends.

Along this line, Washington ought to stimulate creative thinking to find other ways to make Islamists across the world understand that their activities will be cost worthy, including loss of access to American opportunities and finances. Such policies would make non-Islamist Muslims feel privileged and create a benefit for being a liberal democrat in a Muslim country, a benefit that does not exist in most places today.

Take bold steps at home

There are also steps that the U.S. can take at home to help defeat the Islamists in the ballot box overseas.  Some other steps include the following:

Restructure the U.S. government: The les- son of postwar Italy is that a reorganization of the government is necessary in fighting the Islamists at the ballot box.  The United States cannot defeat the Islamists with institutions and agencies built to fight the Cold War.  Washington needs to create new bodies to focus its energies on a belt stretching from Morocco to Pakistan and beyond. In doing so, it is acceptable for the United States to make occasional mistakes.  Indeed, many of the agencies Washington established at the beginning of the Cold War to manage the situation in Italy did not work and were shut- down.  But new institutions were set up in their stead. The government was able to learn from its mistakes. This strategy should be employed for dealing with the Muslim majority countries today.

Invest heavily in area and language studies of Muslim countries: Even though some such agencies are already established, Washington is un- able to staff them with the right people.  The number of Turkish, Arabic, Pashtun, Urdu, and Farsi speakers in the U.S.  government today is dismal.   Alleviating this problem  requires a massive effort of not hundreds or  thousands, but, in the short term, tens of thousands,  and  in the long term, hundreds of thou- sands  of  Arabic,  Farsi,  Pashtun,  Turkish,  Uzbek,

Swahili, Azeri, Malay, Bengali, and Urdu speakers, among other languages.  Washington needs a vast team who are fluent in these languages, as well as the political and social affairs of the countries where these languages are spoken.  To this end, the United States ought to fund exchange programs to the region to send hundreds of thousands of people there, as well as fund university and research programs to facilitate the study of these countries.   A strategy is needed to create tens of thousands of experts who are fluent in the politics and languages of Muslim countries.   Only these people can successfully   staff the new departments and agencies necessary to fight and defeat the Islamists in the ballot box and beyond.

Be bold: One of the ideas developed to fight the communists in Italy was called Psychological Strategy Board Plan B, which came out in 1951.

Until that time, the United States had been fighting communists with economic measures, which were not working. The communists were becoming more powerful in elections.  Hence, at the height of communist power in Italy in 1951, Plan B laid out a strategy to “isolate and weaken the communists with any means possible,” as well as “outlawing communist parties.”  Washington was bold in its determination to defeat the communists at the ballot box.  Unless the United States also takes bold steps today, it will not win the current battle.

An Uphill Struggle

In addition to the work of “Islamist International,” other factors explain the demise of secular, liberal, and nationalist parties in Turkey, Arab world and other Muslim countries.  In Turkey, secular parties that ruled for the last sixty years are fragmented, due to the leader-driven nature of Turkish politics. Today, Turkey has many center-right, center-left, and nationalist parties that vie for the same secular voter base.  Not much can be done from outside to change this dynamic unless the secular leadership takes action to unite its forces or Turkish voters force them to do so.  Hence, even if at first glance Turkey seems an easy case because of its functioning democracy, it is actually a tough nut to crack due to the vicissitudes of its political culture.

In Muslim majority countries, Islamist parties are doing well because they promise change.   The revolutionary utopian promise of a bright new tomorrow that the Islamist parties offer stands in sharp

contrast to the tired rhetoric of the secular, liberal, and nationalist parties.  In this regard, non-Islamists have much to do to produce and successfully market a  new,  attractive  political  vision  that  captures  the imagination  of  the  masses. However, unless the United States takes an active interest in supporting such a strategy, it will not work against the exciting, well-funded program of Islamism.

For too long dictatorial regimes in the Arab world have oppressed secular, liberal, and nationalist parties. While Islamists have been able to bypass the restrictions of authoritarian regimes in the safety of the mosques, liberals have been jailed and weakened, and their grassroots structures mostly shut down.   As   a   result,   the   playing field   between Islamists and non-Islamists is not level and will not be so for some time. This is one key reason why elections within Arab countries produce Islamist victories over secular, liberal, and nationalist parties. The U.S. needs to understand that the struggle to defeat the Islamists at the ballot box is not only a costly and daring endeavor, but also an uphill march that will require great patience. It is a strategy that results in elections it does not start with them.

tags: Islamists / Muslim Countries / Islamist Parties / liberal / Nationalist / Secular Parties / Palestinian / AKP / Democratization / World War II
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